ON AUGUST 15, 1896, while preparing to depart for a three-week vacation out West, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his sister Anna: “We’ve had two excitements in New York the past week; the heated term, and Bryan’s big meeting. The heated term was the worst and most fatal we have ever known. The death-rate trebled until it approached the ratio of a cholera epidemic; the horses died by the hundreds, so that it was impossible to remove their carcasses, and they added a genuine flavor of pestilence, and we had to distribute hundred of tons of ice from the station-houses to the people of the poorer precincts.” Roosevelt, then thirty-seven and president of New York’s Board of Police Commissioners, was describing one of the most extraordinary weeks in the city’s history.
The “heated term” was an unprecedented heat wave that hit New York over ten days in August 1896. Temperatures in the 90s were accompanied by high humidity. For the duration, thermometers never dropped below 70 degrees, even at night, and over the course of a week and a half the heat wave wore New Yorkers down. The eventual death toll numbered nearly 1,300.
Yet the 1896 New York heat wave remains one of the forgotten natural disasters in American history. It is in the nature of heat waves to kill slowly, with no physical manifestation, no property damage, and no single catastrophic event that marks them as a disaster. For that reason the heat wave is only infrequently remembered, even though it claimed more victims than the 1863 New York City draft riots or the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.
Our collective failure to remember this disaster may also have something to do with the identities of the victims. While the very young and very old were the most vulnerable, the heat wave took a terrible toll on the working poor, the death lists containing the names of hundreds of surprisingly young men who were literally worked to death.
The living conditions of New York’s poor were dire. By August 1896 the entire country had been suffering through a severe economic depression for three years. Millions were out of work. New York, experiencing a wave of massive immigration, seemed particularly hard hit. The tenements of the Lower East Side teemed with recent arrivals who could scarcely afford food or medical care. The combination of poor living conditions, poor working conditions, poor diet, and poor medical care, with temperatures inside the brick tenements easily reaching 120 degrees, killed hundreds of New Yorkers.
Roosevelt compared the heat wave to a cholera epidemic for good reason. Although the heat wave was not an epidemic by any medical definition, the slow unfolding of the tragedy resembled the periodic outbreaks of cholera that had plagued New York throughout the century, more than it did such spectacular disasters as the Great Fire of 1835 or the Blizzard of 1888. Like cholera, the heat in August 1896 struck quietly and undramatically.
New Yorkers remembered 1832’s cholera epidemic as the worst they had ever experienced. That summer the disease had swept through the city. Those who had the means to leave town did so as quickly as possible, leaving New York almost half-empty. For the poor souls that remained—quite literally, the poorest of the inhabitants—some neighborhoods took on the cast of Bruegel’s Triumph of Death. Pedestrians risked being trampled by the hearses that plied the streets day and night. The air was hazy from the burning of the sick’s bedding and clothing. Dead bodies lay in the street untouched by the living, who were scared to approach them, while rats feasted on those buried in shallow graves. Turned away from private hospitals, over 2,000 sick New Yorkers swarmed into Bellevue. Attendants stacked bodies in the morgue, while patients lay dying in hallways. In the end over 3,500 died.
It would take concerted preparations to defeat cholera. Epidemics recurred in the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. Finally in 1892, with a new epidemic sweeping across Europe, New York officials prepared to combat the epidemic on the basis of the latest advances in microbiology. Indeed, the city prepared as if for war, readying a special corps of doctors, hospital ships in the rivers for quarantine patients, and an army of workers to scrub and disinfect 39,000 tenements.
In the end, New York won the war. Although the epidemic of 1892 killed 2,500 Russians each day, only 9 New Yorkers died, and the dread disease would never menace the city again. Defeating cholera illustrated what steps a determined nineteenth-century city must take to prevent a catastrophe from killing its citizenry. In 1896, however, New York City made no concerted effort to combat the heat wave as it had cholera only a few years before. The results were tragic.
Yet it is difficult to entirely blame government officials for failing to respond to the crisis. The especially insidious and subtle nature of heat waves made it difficult to combat them. Furthermore, decades before the New Deal or Great Society reforms, there was simply no social safety net for the poor. During the depression of the 1890s government officials had once again eschewed any responsibility for the poor, the hungry, or the unemployed. “It is not the province of the government to support the people,” New York governor Roswell P. Flower sniffed. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed that “while the people should support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.” Clearly “the people” were on their own.
No surprise, then, that the mayor of New York did not even bother to call an emergency meeting of department heads until more than a week into the heat wave, when it was almost over. Only a handful of city officials addressed the crisis. The commissioner of Public Works changed his men’s work hours to the coolest parts of the day and arranged for the streets to be hosed down—or “flushed”—to cool them off and wash away the filth and garbage. Theodore Roosevelt recommended that the city purchase and give away free ice to the city’s poor. This simple and relatively cheap measure may have saved many lives, and it marked Roosevelt’s continuing education as an urban reformer. Despite these small efforts, the heat wave illustrated the way New York failed to care for its neediest citizens during a great disaster.
THE SAME WEEK of the heat wave witnessed the start of the 1896 presidential campaign. While Republican nominee William McKinley stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, conducting his campaign from his front porch, his adviser Mark Hanna came to town to open the Republican National Headquarters. Hanna took time to consult with Republican Party leaders about campaign matters, including raising money and arranging campaign speakers. One Republican ready to take the stump for the party nominee was Theodore Roosevelt.
William McKinley was a former Ohio governor and congressman who had chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In 1890 he had made himself a household name after introducing a bill that raised tariffs to historically high levels. Both the McKinley Tariff and the bill’s namesake remained the favorite of American business interests. This remained especially true after the Panic of 1893, an economic meltdown caused by overbuilding and a contraction of credit. In February of that year the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had been the first major American business to fall, sending shock-waves throughout the economic system. Credit froze, and by year’s end hundreds of banks and nearly 16,000 more businesses followed. With the current economic crisis occurring on the watch of Democratic president Grover Cleveland, men like John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Steel, and J. P. Morgan of the “House of Morgan” financial empire looked to the Republican candidate to maintain stability and foster steady growth. This became even more imperative as many Democrats called for the United States to leave the gold standard and back the American dollar with both gold and silver. Seeming to signify inflation and a weakened dollar, “bimetallism” haunted the dreams of American businessmen.
Not all Republicans shared such an intense interest in protecting American business. As part of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, Roosevelt had always been more interested in government and urban reform than trade and the money supply. The words “tariff” and “bimetallism” might have been the burning national issues of the various presidential campaigns, but Roosevelt had never been particularly keen on economic issues. Instead, Roosevelt had made his career attacking corruption in New York and had also spent six years as civil service commissioner in Washington, DC, trying to ensure that the government filled its offices based on merit and not political affiliation.
Despite his high ideals, Roosevelt had had a tough going in New York. He always had something of the crusader about him, but by August 1896 one of his crusades had brought him little but scorn in the city of his birth. Attempting to enforce the highly unpopular Sunday Excise Law, mandating that saloons close on the Sabbath, Roosevelt had alienated such important Republican constituencies as New York’s German population, who had switched their votes to New York Democrats in the last election. City and state Republicans blamed Roosevelt and had even tried to legislate the job of president of the Board of Police Commissioners out of existence. In the face of such opposition from his own party, it was fairly clear to Roosevelt that his New York political career was over. By the start of the 1896 campaign, in spite of his differences with McKinley, he was one of many Republicans pinning their hopes on a Republican victory and a new posting in Washington.
As top Republicans descended on New York to plot campaign strategy, the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, also prepared to visit New York. Fresh from his triumphal “Cross of Gold” speech the month before at the Democratic National Convention, Bryan planned to kick off his campaign in what he called “the enemy’s country.” Bryan’s candidacy reflected the split in the Democratic Party over the money supply—the gold standard versus bimetallism. Yet the debate over monetary policy simply reflected the larger question of who exactly held power in the United States. Farmers wanted a looser money supply so that credit might be attained more easily, while the resulting inflation would mean higher prices for their crops. For these farmers, American business’s hostility to bimetallism reflected agriculture’s marginalization at the hands of the “Money Power.” After all, it was reasoned, banks, railroads, corporations, and even political parties kept their headquarters east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. Banks set interest rates, railroad companies set freight rates, and the government adopted a laissez-faire attitude that favored these commercial interests at the expense of the American farmer. The playing field had to be leveled, and backing the American dollar with both gold and silver was one answer. Many had their doubts. Republicans almost uniformly rejected bimetallism. In American cities, laborers feared inflation would dilute their pay-checks. Urban Democrats, such as New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, therefore backed the gold standard and viewed Bryan’s candidacy with skepticism if not utter distaste.
Bryan’s trip to New York was supposed to change that. He planned to officially accept his nomination at a huge meeting in Madison Square Garden. He would avoid the drama and biblical imagery of his “Cross of Gold” speech in favor of a careful, reasoned defense of bimetallism. By presenting himself as a sane and cautious statesman, as opposed to the fire-breathing revolutionary that news accounts had painted him to be, Bryan hoped to win the workingman’s vote and convince skeptical gold Democrats in the urban northeast. Only in this way could Bryan maintain the momentum of his campaign after the Chicago convention.
On Friday, August 8, Bryan and his wife boarded the train in Lincoln, Nebraska, as the heat wave settled over the Plains and Midwest. Across the country, temperatures in New York crept upward, toward the 90s, and as the train sped across the country toward its final destination, it was as if Bryan was bringing the heat with him.